Tag Archives: creating suspense

An Interview with Smith Henderson

3 Jul
Smith Henderson's novel Fourth of July Creek is already in the works to become a television series.

Smith Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek is already in the works to become a television series.

Smith Henderson’s novel, Fourth of July Creek, made news before it was even released, in part due to the bidding war it inspired among publishers. So far, the novel has been called “the best book I’ve read so far this year” by the book editor of The Washington Post and “a hell of a great book” by Esquire. The novel is set in Montana and follows a social worker whose life becomes entwined with the delusional and grandiose actions of a would-be prophet and revolutionary, Jeremiah Pearl.

Henderson was the recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction. He was a 2011 Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University, a 2011 Pushcart Prize winner, and a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He currently works at the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency, where he wrote the Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, New Orleans Review, Makeout Creek, and Witness. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Portland, Oregon.

In this interview, Henderson discusses the challenge of dramatizing a character who spends much of his time off the page and his method for capturing the voice of a man who believes the Antichrist is alive and well.

To read an exercise on using summary in dialogue and an excerpt from Fourth of July Creek, click here.

Michael Noll

I love the way that you make Jeremiah Pearl present in the novel, even when he’s not actually on the page. The biggest way you do this is with the coins that have had holes somehow cut into them. Pete finds one of the coins in his change, and then he runs across individuals who’ve encountered the coins and are collecting them, which leads him to someone who’s had a face-to-face encounter with Pearl. I’m curious if the coins were always present in the novel or if you introduced them to solve some issue you were having, perhaps the difficult of writing about a guy who would necessarily spend much of his time in hiding.

Smith Henderson

I’m sure the coins were a solution, as you suggest, but it was also just one of those things that felt right, and may have been something I was going to have him do all along. You have a character in mind and you start to think of things he or she does and what those things could mean for the plot.

But as you say, Pearl is in hiding quite a bit, so it began to be important that he do enough things that he wasn’t hiding from nobody. People—not just the protagonist, Pete—needed to want to find him. And so then you just start to look at things that a guy like that would do that would draw attention. The coins were definitely part of that.

If there’s a craft takeaway from all this, it’s probably that a character’s actions should both move the plot and be expressive of that character’s core identity.

Michael Noll

While Pearl makes his first appearance early on in the novel, he isn’t seen a second time until about halfway through. In that span of pages, you’ve created a tremendous amount of suspense about his activities and who, exactly, he is. Did you worry about how you’d satisfy the intrigue you’d built up? In other words, how did you approach the scene that you must have known that your readers would be dying for—Pete’s second encounter with Pearl?

Smith Henderson

I honestly don’t recall approaching that scene. I remember being more concerned with making Pearl off-stage as compelling as scenes with him in them. A scene with characters in the same time and place is technically easier to do than having a character relate a story to another character.

But of course, there was pressure to make Pearl-in-the-flesh as vibrant, interesting, and troubling as possible. To have earned that intrigue. But then, the intrigue itself gives the character a certain degree of power. Playing against the created image of the man was a large part of the fun in writing those scenes.

Michael Noll

Smith Henderson's highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called "the best book I've ready so far this year" by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Smith Henderson’s highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called “the best book I’ve ready so far this year” by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

One last question about Pearl (he’s tremendously fascinating). How much research was required to write his rants? Did you try to research the kinds of things he would have read about? Or did you research people like him to see what they talked about?

Smith Henderson

Well I’ve been to churches where people spoke in tongues and where the religious intensity was hotter than say, at a Unitarian church or something. I was privy to conversations about who exactly was the antichrist. So a lot of Pearl’s basic worldview was familiar to me, as it is to millions of Americans.

Also, people in Montana are generally suspicious of “outside” authority…so I was steeped in that kind of thinking before I ever conceived of Pearl. But as it came time to bring him to life, I did research into separatist movements and militias and the different flash points of the past 30 years. The Unabomber’s capture, the Ruby Ridge standoff, the hunt for Eric Rudolph. But Pearl’s voice was drawn from more older sources. I read a lot of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Nietzsche to get his pronouncements to sound properly grand. He’s as much a product of the Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the temple as he is Timothy McVeigh.

Michael Noll

The novel is written from a few different points of view, and in the sections about Pete’s daughter Rachel, you use a Q&A format. Was this a way to break up the pace of the novel? Her story takes place pretty far from Pearl’s story, and so I’m wondering if you felt the need to give her sections some extra velocity, some snap, to keep the reader’s mind from wandering back to Pearl and Pete.

Smith Henderson

The Q&A format is basically a way for me to generate material. I will often write that way to figure out a character or write my way out of a problem. With the Rachel sections, I just found that I liked them in the Q&A style. For a couple reasons. First, the identities of the Q&A aren’t really identified and work like a Greek chorus, sort of commenting on the action as they disclose it. But also, there is an inherent anxiety to the questions, which I felt really gave the reader Pete’s perspective on his daughter’s fate, his worry, his fear, his imagination running away with the possibilities…it’s as if every question is some version of “Is she okay is she okay is she okay is she okay…?” I found that much more satisfying experience as a reader.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Jennifer Ziegler

5 Jun
Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

In Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, three flowers girls set out to ruin their sister’s wedding.

Jennifer Ziegler’s latest middle-grade novel is Revenge of the Flower Girls. She’s also the author of How Not to Be Popular and Sass & Serendipity. She teaches writing workshops, edits other writers’ work, and creates writing programs for The Writer’s League of Texas. She lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, the writer Chris Barton, and their four children.

In this interview, Ziegler discusses inventing characters, the importance of villains, and her method for keeping the plot straight in her head.

To read an excerpt from Revenge of the Flower Girls and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you invent characters. Some of the characters in the book, especially Mrs. Caldwell, exude a kind of essential Texan-ness. Her last name is even a famous Texas name. But other characters are much more idiosyncratic. For instance, you describe Aunt Jane this way: “She’s tall and strong. She played professional basketball for a while and then taught PE classes here in Blanco County. Now she lives in Boston, where she runs a bar.” What do you draw on to create your characters?

Jennifer Ziegler

The way I invent characters is a mystery even to me. I often feel that characters gestate in my mind for a long time until the right story concept comes along. How they get planted there, I don’t really know. I suspect that they are amalgams of people I know or used to know or observed from afar. They are never close replications of individuals from my life. Even when I’ve tried to put friends or family in my novels the characters based on them morph into their own distinct beings. At times I’m aware that I’m borrowing elements from real people (their mannerisms or looks or habits of speech), but more often I have no idea. There have been instances when I’ve flipped through a published book of mine and suddenly realized who a character was partly based on – subconsciously. That’s always a strange revelation. But I suppose all novelists can at least be partly psychoanalyzed through their fiction.

Michael Noll

There are several instances in the book where the triplets create a plan of action and describe it in detail—and then, of course, the plan goes off the rails. I know that you’re a thorough outliner of plot, and I’m curious how these sorts of plans factor into your outlining. From a reader’s perspective, they’re great at creating suspense. But are they useful to you as a writer as well?

Jennifer Ziegler

Yes very. The triplets’ schemes are integral to the book’s plot. I had to make sure I got everything straight before I started writing because logistics aren’t my strong suit. I like to disappear into the story as I go along and whenever I get yanked out of that world in order to work out the cause and effects, it slows down my momentum. I knew who the triplets were and what they wanted, so it was just a case of figuring out how they would approach this problem and what would be the outcome of each of their plans.

Knowing who they were told me what they would do. Because the girls are big history buffs, it made sense that they would brainstorm complicated operations – that they would be action oriented rather than just mope. But, of course, they are only 11, so their lack of worldly experience translated into somewhat unrealistic schemes. The plans show just how far the girls will go to help their sister, what they’re good at, how they assume the world works, and how they work together – so they also help reveal character.

Michael Noll

The novel features three narrators who are triplets. Each of them takes turns telling the story, which must have presented an enormous challenge to you as the writer: how to distinguish between them. One thing I noticed is that you give the triplets, and all of the characters, tags. For instance, the triplets are history buffs, and so they judge each other and everyone else based on their choice of favorite president of the United States. For instance, Darby mentions that their big sister’s ex-boyfriend liked Thomas Jefferson, and says, “We all respect that.” But the big sister’s fiancé likes Franklin Pierce, and she says that “we all agree that Pierce was not one of the best.” This reminds me of the way George Lucas used motifs in Star Wars: a particular musical phrase that corresponds with each character. Is this technique essential for the kind of story you’re telling, or is it something you use regardless of the story?

Jennifer Ziegler

I use it regardless of the story. It’s showing rather than telling. You, as storyteller, know so much more about the characters with regard to who they are and where they came from. The problem is, you can’t put it all in the book, and you don’t want to interrupt the action with big information dumps. So instead you impart key aspects of character through dialogue, action, description, and these nuggets of revealing information – or tags. The fact that Burton names Franklin Pierce as his favorite president tells the triplets (and the reader) that he either A) doesn’t know his presidential history or care about it or B) is judging by very different, perhaps very superficial, standards. Both possibilities are alarming to the triplets.

Michael Noll

The novel has a very clear villain. At every opportunity, Mrs. Caldwell does something unlikable. For instance, when the wedding menu is being planned, she refuses to include meat-free options for the bride, who is a vegetarian. She says, “Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment.” And, “Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.” Her lack of empathy or sense of compromise is pretty astonishing. How important is it to create a character like this—and to create moments where she can be bad?

Jennifer Ziegler

In this story it was critical that there be a clear antagonist. For one thing, the title sort of promises it, and for another, the mayhem created by the girls would be excessive and mean-spirited if there wasn’t a clear reason for it. The readers have to believe in their mission, too.

At the earliest concept stages, there was no mother-in-law character and I intended to make the groom the antagonist. But that didn’t work. It didn’t make sense that Lily – even if she was on the rebound – would fall for someone villainous. Burton isn’t a bad guy, he just isn’t the right guy. It’s clear to the sisters, and hopefully to readers, that Lily is about to make an awful mistake. But for them to go to such extremes and be thwarted meant there had to be some equal opposing force. Thus, the pushy Mrs. Caldwell was created. Her son is basically her whole life and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants for him. Plus, she is the type of woman who is used to getting her way. It is gradually revealed that she is meddling in her own fashion as much as the triplets are. The difference is that she’s trying to manipulate her vision of her son’s future regardless of what’s right for everyone involved. The girls, on the other hand, just want to make sure their sister is happy. I liked this juxtaposition.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston

15 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's story collection, Corpus Christi, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. He has just published his first novel, Remember Me Like This.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s first book, Corpus Christi: Stories, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. His new novel, Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a boy who disappears in Corpus Christi and then mysteriously turns up.

Bret Anthony Johnston new novel Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a Corpus Christi family whose young son disappeared for years and then mysteriously reappeared. A review in the Washington Post says that the book asks, “But what happens after the cable news hysteria fades away, and the mayor issues a proclamation and the tearful grandparents fly back home? Are these rare families like lottery winners who celebrate in public and then, in the months that follow, squander their good fortune?”

Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.

In this interview, Johnston discusses suspenseful imagery, the challenge of finding the right tone, and his approach to place in fiction.

To read an excerpt from Remember Me Like This and an exercise on setting the mood in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a body facedown in the water. This image doesn’t return until almost the end of the novel. In fact, it’s almost possible to forget about it since it’s not long before the drama of the novel takes over. What went into your decision to open the novel with that image? Did you worry that the reader would become impatient with wanting to return to it?

Bret Anthony Johnston

My hope was that the image would embed itself in the reader’s subconscious memory, that it would be something of a shadow that followed them through the story. I wanted them to wonder about the body; I wanted it to keep them from getting too comfortable in the story, to preclude them from taking survival for granted. That is, I wanted them to share the experience that the family endures. Starting the book that way seemed to invite a necessary kind of empathy. Of course you’re right, though, in that it’s almost possible to forget about the image. That’s the gamble I had to take so that when the body returns, the reader is jolted and yanked back toward a kind of raw vulnerability. I hope it works. If it didn’t, don’t tell me.

Michael Noll

The scene where Justin appears for the first time is really well done and uses a deft trick of misdirection. I can imagine that scene was difficult to write. The readers been waiting for it intently, and so there’s a need to both meet and confound their expectations. How did you approach that scene?

Bret Anthony Johnston

Your reading of the scene, the craft behind it, is incredibly accurate and I really appreciate such close reading, Michael. Thank you. What you’re pointing out, though, actually came with relative ease—meaning, it was stunningly difficult and time-consuming, but still not as difficult or time-consuming as other scenes—because it was the result of empathizing with the characters. I only had to understand what the characters would be feeling in that moment, and because I knew them well by that point in the book, their reactions were readily available. Once I understood that she would fixate on her memory him being afraid of snakes, I felt really at home in her reaction.

What took an enormous amount of time was striking the right balance in what might be called tone. I revised and revised and revised to get the scene to move evenly toward the revelation. I struggled with the pace for many drafts. I struggled with the cop’s reaction and the district attorney’s entrance. As you say, it was a scene that we were all waiting to see—not least the writer and the characters—and I took care not to speed through it or linger in an indulgent, self-defeating way. One of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out to my students is to engage the opposite emotion of what the reader would expect, and I relied on that here. The expectation, I thought, would be hopefulness, but I didn’t think these characters had much hope left in them. I saw that as an opportunity, a way in.

Michael Noll

Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

The novel returns to certain places (the empty pool at the “half-razed TeePee Motel” and the Marine Lab). The places begin just as places where the characters go, but over the course of the novel, several of the most important events occur there. Did you have certain dramatic scenes in mind when you first introduced those places into the novel? Or, did you explore the places and return to them until the drama presented itself?

Bret Anthony Johnston

The latter. When I start writing anything, I have no intentions of any kind, and the novel was no different. I approach every piece of fiction the same way, which is to pay attention to the details, images, and artifacts of the story and take nothing for granted. My impulse is to reach backwards in a story rather to stretch forward, so I’m always asking myself what’s already in play that I can use again, that I can recycle in a manner that will reward the reader’s attention. It’s a mechanism of repetition and evolution. In this case, I returned to various places until those places evolved to mean something other than what they had. I think a lot of new writers are excited by the prospect of constantly bringing in new material, new imagery or settings or objects, but I think the more satisfying move is often to juggle what you already have so that the reader sees something familiar in a new, more revelatory light.

Michael Noll

It’s been ten years since Corpus Christi: Stories was published. Since then you’ve continued to write stories, and you’ve also published a book of creative writing exercises and written a film documentary about skateboarder Danny Way. Plus, you direct the writing program at Harvard. In other words, you’ve been pretty busy. And yet, I can imagine there was pressure to produce a novel, especially since your first book was so well received. How were you able to resist that pressure, to discover the novel you wanted to write and then write it at a pace that would allow it to become the book you had in mind?

Bret Anthony Johnston

You’re absolutely right about the pressure, but I regard any kind of pressure as a privilege. I’m incredibly fortunate to have editors and readers who want to read my work, and I refuse to take that as a given. Honestly, it still surprises me. It really does. It surprises me to the degree that I don’t fully believe anyone when they ask to read something I’ve written; I think they’re just being nice.

And yet it’s always been clear to me that I’m a slow writer and there will be years between the books that I’m lucky enough to publish. Meaning, I don’t want to publish something until I think it’s ready, until I’ve written the book I want to read, because it will be a long, long time before I have the opportunity to redeem myself. What this means is that I’ve missed many deadlines. I know I missed at least three for the novel, though maybe I missed more. The book just wasn’t ready, and publishing it would have seemed a kind of malpractice. I always gave the publisher the opportunity to cancel my contract, and I apologized profusely, but I also wouldn’t show them the book until it was ready. I worked with an amazing editor named Kendra Harpster, and she was beyond supportive. Not only would the book not have been published without her, the published book wouldn’t be nearly as successful without her guidance. It’s another way that I got lucky. I’ve been lucky my whole career. Lucky and slow, that’s my life as a writer. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

7 Jan
Victor Giannini's essay about his father's struggles with PTSD, "His Room's a Jungle," was published at Narratively.

Victor Giannini’s essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD, “His Room’s a Jungle,” was published at Narratively.

Every writer struggles at some point with transitions: how to move from one moment in time or idea to another moment. If the piece spans many years, these transitions become even more important because the writer is clumping together time: a moment here, a moment there, some context here. The transitions between these clumps can be simple (“And then…”), but how do you make them simple and also keeps the reader hooked?

Victor Giannini demonstrates how to use transitions in this beautiful essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD after serving in Vietnam. “His Room’s a Jungle” was published at Narratively, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it.

In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link:

  • A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. The essay begins with the writer sitting in his father’s living room, watching a storm through the window. The transition works by directly linking this storm with another storm. Notice how quickly this happens:

I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.

  • A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. The essay is, in part, a bildungsroman—a story about a young person learning some elemental truth that forever changes his life. The following passage demonstrates how to distill the belief that will change and the event that changes it:

When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.

War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.

  • A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This link is the opposite of the previous one, and, as a result, the two are often used in tandem, as is the case in “His Room’s a Jungle”:

Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!

Transitions become more difficult if you’re not sure what you’re linking: in other words, what is each passage about? The answer should be more than what happened. You’re also developing an idea: this happened, and this is the change that occurred as a result.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some transitions, using “His Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini as a model:

  1. Pick a true story to tell. Choose one that has personal importance, one that you’ve thought about a lot, one that gives you the sense that all was not the same after the events occurred.
  2. A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. In essence, this is the “This reminds me of a time…” link. When do you find yourself thinking about this story? Are there particular triggers? You can choose something timely (something from today’s news) or something routine (walking the dog, watching football, washing dishes). Keep in mind that the thing you remember is more important than the trigger—so just like a real trigger, the mechanics of it should happen quickly. Get the reader into the moment as fast as possible. Giannini does like this: “It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us.”
  3. A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. In short, how did you once feel about the thing you are writing about? Which moment really began to change that belief? This is an old storytelling technique—think about the New Testament’s Saul getting knocked off his horse by lightning and becoming the evangelist Paul. Your moment might be less dramatic than a lightning strike, but it should start a chain of events that will lead to a new way of thinking. To make this work, summarize the belief and then transition quickly to the moment. Giannini uses three words: “Then, one day…”
  4. A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This is your chance to tell the reader how your ideas changed. While this could come at the end of the essay, it’s probably better to put it nearer the beginning. Ideally, the new attitude will complicate matters. Think about it this way: Now that the wool has been pulled away from your eyes, what do you see? It’s probably something a little unsettling. The transitional phrase can be simple. Giannini uses this: “From then on…”

Good luck and have fun!

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